Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mathematical Platonism


James Robert Brown’s Philosophy of Mathematics: A Contemporary Introduction to the World of Proofs and Pictures (Routledge, 2008).

There is a difference between general Platonism and the mathematical flavor. For Plato, each apple, say, is but an imperfect example of the absolute (and perfect) Idea of an apple. But as Aristotle quickly realized, Plato has it exactly backwards: we arrive at the general idea of ‘apple’ by mentally abstracting a set of characteristics we think common to all actual apples. It is we who conjure the ‘perfect’ idea from the world, not the world copying the concept.

But now contrast the idea of an apple with the idea of a circle. Here Aristotle’s approach becomes more problematic, as we don’t find any true circles in nature. No natural object has the precise geometric characteristics of a circle, and in a very strong sense we can also say that the circles we draw are but imperfect representations of the perfect idea of a circle. Ah – but whence does such a perfect idea come from?

Consider another way to put the problem. One major difference between science and technology is that science discovers things, while technology is about human inventions. We discover the law of gravity; but we invent airplanes to allow heavier-than-air flight despite the law of gravity. But where do mathematical objects, like circles and numbers, or mathematical theorems like the Pythagorean one, or Fermat’s Last one, come from? Are they inventions of the human mind, or are they discoveries?

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